Fear or Fungus

After reading fiction selections, week after week, in dozens of New Yorker magazine issues, I concluded that unless the story I would dare to submit were grim, tragic, disheartening, disorienting, or all of the above, (does that series necessitate an oxford comma?), the editor would reject it. I also concluded if the name of certain fine writers, like my idol, Karen Russell, were attached to a piece, I’d better approach it with caution and with some sort of calmative in hand, because waves of discomfort alternating with sadness were sure to wash over me as I read it.

A strong response to a good short story is appropriate. What writer doesn’t want her work to affect the reader deeply? Yet, I am grateful to the New Yorker fiction editor for any piece that’s lighter and more inviting. What am I avoiding?

Russell’s tale, “Orange World,” published in the June 4 & 11, 2018 issue, explores the way fear has made the protagonist Rae easy to control. An expectant mother experiencing prenatal difficulties, Rae makes a pact to breastfeed a minor devil so her baby’s birth and future health will be safe.  At night, in the gutter of her dark and unpeopled street, or in communal spaces, Rae succumbs to, but later identifies and overcomes her fears and builds her mother-child bond.  The story ends on a positive note, but an ominous gloom hangs over it from the outset. “Orange World’ is well-crafted and super engaging, especially to anyone who has born and nursed a child. Its structure and exploration of anxieties that drive our behavior had me thinking about it long after I read the issue. Next time I see her name in the table of contents, I’ll find something soothing to drink, then devour her latest contribution to one of my favorite magazines.

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“The ease with which people receded from view. Like buying coffee and exchanging pleasantries with a person waiting in line and how this could make Andrew feel human for the rest of the day, the fact that people were nice and decent and maybe he was nice and decent and maybe there was a nice and decent future ahead—all these nothing moments growing in number, tenuous yet taking shape around the void, the impression of life gradually becoming life.” This quotation, from “Fungus,” a beautiful story by David Gilbert in the same New Yorker issue, is aspirational language. Andrew, a widower whose wife and older daughter died in a car crash is reconciling with his life now shared in Portland, Oregon, with his younger daughter, Willa. He finds more comfort in his memories of a nerdy, intellectual youth than in whatever his foggy future portends.  In contrast, his six-year-old carries on, with confidence Andrew finds inscrutable. The purchase of a new car, presented as the nerve-wracking experience many of us know, is the vehicle (pun intended) Gilbert uses to carry us through Andrew’s journey. Although this story, too, discomfited me as I read it, by the end I gave into the familiar emotions it elicited. Many of us know of suffering, loss, and the mechanics of retrieving our equilibrium, sometimes managing to exit to the other side, and many of us will remain confounded by the enigmas we have parented.

Andrew is wrestling with the devil of his sorrow and confusion, while Rae’s little devil is her life-long habit of fear. Many of us recognize those sorts of devils, so, maybe Russell’s tale is not that dark, after all. Maybe the New Yorker fiction editor feels these seriously sideways tales give readers a way to see themselves differently, albeit driving them to seek that cup of calmative something. In such meaningful encounters with fiction, we might find truths about ourselves, as difficult and awful as it can be.

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